Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope
Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change. Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. $21.99. 327 pp. ISBN 978-0-8499-0183-6.
I know some people read everything that McLaren writes; others studiously avoid his books--either after having read A New Kind of Christian or after being warned by others about his postmodern departures from orthodoxy. I guess I'm in the middle of these poles: this is the third of his books I've read (the other: A Generous Orthodoxy). I give them all mostly positive reviews. When one interacts with writers who are attempting to cut across the grain and get readers to consider ideas that are uncomfortable or threatening, feathers are bound to fly. Clearly, he seeks to push the boundaries. All in all, McLaren, formerly a pastor for twenty-four years, has written or contributed to a couple dozen books in the last decade and has made himself a vocal spokesperson for change within so-called "progressive" evangelicalism, again, to the delight or consternation of many.
As the title of this book suggests, here is no tentative or gentle invitation to consider some minor tweaking of peripheral matters. This is McLaren's no-holds-barred appeal for the church to adopt a radical transformation of its approach to the world before it's too late. And by "too late" he means both before the world spirals into total chaos and dysfunction, and before the church demonstrates its irrelevance in addressing the pressing and most critical problems facing our world today.
He describes these critical problems in terms of three grave problems: (1) the prosperity crisis--an environmental breakdown that fails to respect the world's limits even though it creates great wealth for some; (2) the equity crisis--the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, prompting increasing envy, resentment, and hatred; and (3) the security crisis--the prospect of increasing wars and conflicts due to these disparities. Of course, these surface a spirituality crisis--the failure of the world's major religions, and he's especially concerned about Christianity, to address the three crises.
In the book McLaren wonders why religious people-especially evangelical Christians-don't seem to care about the world's most serious problems? The really big issues are not on the agendas of most churches; they're concerned about worship styles or attracting more people to services. Why do many Christians continue to think that the biggest problems in the world are homosexuality, abortion, and evolution? Or why do others think that Jesus' sole agenda was to get people into heaven when they die, or to enable his beloved people (namely, us) to live self-fulfilled and prosperous lives? McLaren asks, can this be authentic Christianity? Is this all Jesus came to do? He agrees that Jesus came to become the Savior of the world-that is, to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction caused by human evil (p. 79). Thus two questions preoccupy McLaren: what are the world's biggest problems? and What does Jesus have to say about these global crises?
The point of the book is to provide what McLaren calls a better "framing story"--a vision of what Jesus' message truly entailed--than the ones that currently prevail among many Christians. If we could see the real Jesus and what he intended to accomplish, and get on board with his agenda for the world, we would turn our world around before it's too late. The church could be a force for real change, for justice, equity, and peace, rather than an object of scorn or viewed as irrelevant. And Christians could find their real mission in the world-one that makes a difference in this world in this life as well as lead people to everlasting life in the world to come.
Many of the chapters of the book provide graphic details that illustrate the crises he sees. Many of the details arise from McLaren's numerous journeys throughout the world during 2006-07. He also includes much research collected from various sources; extensive endnotes document these. Lest readers think the book is a jeremiad against capitalism or any political party or group, he steers clear of assigning specific blame but sticks to the central realities that have led to the crises. So, in simple terms, he argues that the way we are currently operating our world cannot be sustained. Unless changes are implemented, systems will collapse and we will all suffer. His point is not to induce guilt, nor does he think Jesus would have us opt out of the world. Rather, we should seek the common good, not simply the selfish interests of our ego, family, religion, race, nation, or species
As always, some readers will recoil against McLaren's "emerging view" that he sets against the traditional, or what he calls conventional, views. Indeed he indicts traditional views since they have resulted in many (often unintended) consequences. His criticisms ring truer in some quarters than in others. Here he goes: due to its (i.e., much conventional evangelical theology's) preoccupation with getting people saved for eternity, Jesus becomes irrelevant to human socials evils in this life. The traditional view offers people little hope for this present life but holds out only a better afterlife "by and by." It is dualistic and concentrates on "spiritual" matters relegating the "secular" to the unimportant since we're just passing through this world anyway. It offers hope and consolation to the "elect" while caring little for everyone else or the planet (despite God's love for the world and Jesus' command that his followers love their enemies). It views this world merely as an entity ultimately facing destruction with the result that this world's problems (poverty, injustice, degrading environment, wars, etc.) recede to the back burners of concern or are ignored altogether. And since it views the afterlife as the true arena of salvation, it assumes that this world will get worse and worse-and may believe that this is God's will. He says that many traditional eschatologies, "intoxicated by dubious interpretations of John's Apocalypse, are not only ignorant and wrong, but dangerous and immoral" (p. 144). These will be fighting words for many conservatives.
Readers of N.T. Wright's works on New Testament theology will hear some clear resonances. That is, the message of Jesus is more than merely getting people saved so they can go to heaven when they die. Jesus' message is one of redemption and transformation both now and eternally. The Gospel, McLaren insists, is better news than we have been led to believe by the traditional views. As Jesus challenged the prevailing stories of his day (as represented by the Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, or Essenes) and the domination of Rome, we must resist the prevalent and regnant stories today that fail to bring hope and solutions to the crises we face. McLaren avers that popular evangelical theology has watered Jesus down and domesticated him to align with the values of modern Western culture. McLaren proposes to turn Jesus loose to change the world. Not surprisingly to turn Jesus loose we must hear again--but this time really hear and implement-the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. As McLaren reintroduces Jesus to his readers, he shows how a careful reading of Jesus in the context of his culture can lead us to put into action a message of global transformation in ours. Jesus announced a "new global love economy" that framed a story of "God's sacred ecosystem." To follow Jesus responsibly means to live in God's story, not the ones we been led to believe are correct or even inevitable.
After reintroducing Jesus, McLaren returns to an assessment of the global crises, showing how his reading of Jesus' message of the kingdom addresses the security, prosperity, and equity systems. Yes the problems are immense and inter-related. Some people might despair that the problems are intractable. But McLaren calls for hope and courage, and that we not wait for politicians or political systems to implement changes. These powers have too many vested interests in keeping things as they are. In an insightful borrowing from Jim Wallis, McLaren notes that though we can't change politicians (after all, they are always wetting their fingers to see which way the wind is blowing), "we're going to have to change the wind" (p. 269). This requires discovering and adopting Jesus' message, to believe him as the bearer of good news. We must change people's values individually and corporately to match Jesus' story of redemption and restoration.
He does not leave his readers with abstract ideals but provides concrete and specific ways that Christians can unlearn the "covert curriculum" of our world and implement a new vision of what the kingdom can look like today. He issues a call to action on four levels: personal (for example, pray, work, and buy differently); community (new kinds of faith communities that work for the kingdom and don't merely perpetuate the existing realities); public (or social action to work for change in society); and global (when all of these work together to change systems).
The book is easy reading, tailored for a popular audience. The thirty-four chapters are short and each ends with "Group Dialogue Questions" that can stimulate good discussions. The style is engaging if provocative in places. Readers will not be neutral.
Personally, I found the book inspiring and challenging. Of course, one can nitpick here or there about McLaren's exegesis of texts or his understanding of features of Jesus' world. But reading as I have recently among biblical scholars from other cultures and worldviews, I've become more aware of how my (and our) views have been shaped by the dominant culture of the Christian West. My point is not that "we're" all wrong, and "they're" all right. It's that apart from serious reflection and a constant rereading of the gospels, we risk, in Paul's words, allowing "the world around [us] squeeze [us] into its own mould" (Romans 12:2; J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English). Does Jesus have anything to say about the real global crises of our world, or is he only into saving souls so they can get to heaven when they die? In Everything Must Change McLaren puts the question starkly before us. How can we fail to engage it for ourselves and in our churches?
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament